Cosmic Books

Winter’s tales for science (and sci-fi) fans

Wintry weather and a COVID pandemic may have a chilling effect on travel itineraries at the start of 2022, but there are still opportunities to explore scientific frontiers from the comfort of a reading chair.

Here are seven books from the past year that should satisfy your scientific curiosity — or your yen for a sci-fi escape from the cold realities we’re facing this winter. We’re also including a few bonus picks, plus links to other best-book lists.

Because most of these books have been out for months, they qualify as this month’s selections for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that should be available to check out at your local library or secondhand book shop. 2022 marks the 20th anniversary for the CLUB Club, and for Cosmic Log.

The Code Breaker

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Jennifer Doudna, who played a leading role in creating the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR, was published last April and is a classic CLUB Club selection. But there’s more to come: An adaptation for young readers is coming out in April, and stay tuned for the TV series.

The Premonition

Michael Lewis — author of “The Big Short,” “Moneyball” and other tales of human foibles — presents a nonfiction thriller about the roots of the COVID pandemic. As the crisis drags into its third year, other works bring fresh perspectives to  the pandemic — including a comics anthology titled “COVID Chronicles”; a kid-friendly graphic novel called “A Shot in the Arm”; and “First Wave,” a National Geographic documentary focusing on how a New York hospital dealt with the early months of the pandemic. “First Wave,” now streaming on Hulu, is definitely for grown-ups.

Under a White Sky

For years, Elizabeth Kolbert has been sounding the alarm about environmental perils in her reports for The New Yorker as well as in books including “The Sixth Extinction” and “Field Notes From a Catastrophe.” Her latest, “Under a White Sky,” documents how human activity has been reshaping our planet — and how some scientists and engineers are trying to head off catastrophe. For another perspective on climate change (and what to do about it), check out our Fiction Science interview with Penn State researcher Michael E. Mann, author of “The New Climate War.”

Deep Time

Riley Black’s richly illustrated book turns the 4.5-billion-year history of our planet into bite-size nuggets that are tailor-made for coffee-table consumption. Another book by Black, “The Last Days of the Dinosaurs,” is due for release in April. For a different perspective on deep time, check out “Explorers of Deep Time,” a book by Roy Plotnick that delves into the nitty-gritty of paleontology and the lives of paleontology. (Full disclosure: Plotnick, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in invertebrate paleobiology, is the father of my son-in-law.)

Scientists: Inspiring Tales of the
World’s Brightest Scientific Minds

This compendium of more than 50 biographies of scientists is just the thing to inspire 7- to 9-year-olds who are stuck at home due to COVID restrictions. The list runs the gamut from the famous (including Stephen Hawking and Marie Curie) to the should-be-famous (for instance, chemist Chika Kuroda, the first woman in Japan to earn a bachelor’s degree in science). Another book published in the past year, “Wonder Women of Science,” focuses on 12 modern-day researchers.

The History of Science Fiction

Science fiction’s evolution gets the graphic-novel treatment in a 200-page, full-color volume written by Xavier Dollo and illustrated by Djibril Morissette-Phan. The pictures and text are so densely packed that you shouldn’t expect to get through it in one sitting. Seattle-area sci-fi writer Ted Chiang sets the scene in the book’s foreword. Hundreds of sci-fi novels and other works come in for a mention, which is enough of a reading list to keep you occupied for years. There’s even a nod to “The Expanse” — a space opera that has just reached its conclusion in a novel titled “Leviathan Falls.”

AI 2041

Tech executive Kai-Fu Lee and sci-fi author Chen Qiufan team up to present 10 short stories about a world remade by artificial intelligence in 20 years’ time — including the rise of a “job reallocation” industry for workers displaced by AI, a deep-fake video factory in Nigeria, and a potentially dangerous mash-up of quantum computing, cryptocurrency hacking and autonomous weapons. For a nonfiction survey of AI, check out “Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans.”

More best-book lists

Update for 9 a.m. PT Jan. 4: I’ve corrected Plotnick’s affiliation to make it the right university in Chicago.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: